You Shouldn’t Need a College Degree

W.J. Astore

A friend sent along an article today with the eye-catching title “You shouldn’t need a college degree to have a decent life in America.” The author argued that Americans are too dependent on college for better opportunities and that a Swiss model of education based on vocational tracking had some lessons for us. Here’s the link: Karin Klein, LA Times, June 13th, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/insight/2021/06/13/You-shouldn-t-need-a-college-degree-to-have-a-decent-life-in-America/stories/202106130026

But what was most interesting to me was what the article left out. Firstly, my dad never finished high school, but he got an education in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and the Army during World War II, then did factory work (again) until he got on the civil service as a firefighter. And that’s what was essential: a decent-paying job backed up by a strong union. My dad’s pay and benefits continued to increase throughout his career because of the firefighters’ union and its bargaining power. Yet nowhere in the article above are unions mentioned. In fact, in America today unions are often demonized as being against the interests of workers. Instead, we’re urged to trust in the uber-rich like Jeff Bezos to provide high-paying jobs with great benefits. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

My dad’s “education” included two years in the CCC, including time in Oregon fighting major forest fires. He never formally graduated from high school but loved philosophy and opera

Secondly, the article fails to mention anything about a living wage for these workers and their careers. There’s no mention of Joe Biden’s broken promise to pass a $15 federal minimum hourly wage (which really nowadays should be $20 an hour).  Without unions and without a living wage, how are all these high school graduates with vocations going to support themselves? Not all vocations pay that well, and some pay no more than $10 an hour and come without health care. Small wonder that so many Americans turn to college for some “insurance.”

Yet even in college they often don’t find the insurance they’re looking for. America’s collegiate system is often about funneling the maximum number of young adults to college while extracting as much money from them as they and their parents are able (or unable) to pay. What’s “higher” about higher education are often the bills and little else.

Look, I taught for nine years at a vocational college and I’m all for it. At a community college you can gain certificates and associate degrees without assuming a heavy load of student debt.  I agree we need more decent-paying vocational programs. For example, I had a student who trained as a heavy equipment operator.  He didn’t do that well in my class, but he didn’t much care.  As he told me, he was graduating to a job, probably in the fracking fields of Pennsylvania, where he’d soon be earning $75K-$85K a year, and this was circa 2010. Not bad pay at all for his chosen profession.

I’m all for vocational options that don’t require four-year (or longer) college degrees and lots of debt.  But let’s have strong unions and fair pay as well, else many of these vocational graduates will be screwed yet again by a system that deflates wages as much as possible so as to funnel more money to the richest.

Another subject the author fails to develop is how college has become the new high school for too many students.  I saw my share of students where I taught who needed remedial math and English because they didn’t learn the same in high school.  Partly this is because we underfund our schools, underpay our teachers, and often focus way too much on high school sports (football in Texas, anyone?).

I also wonder at times whether our system is designed to produce dead ends for students.  It’s one way you get more than a few eighteen-year-olds to enlist in the military. They’re often seeking educational benefits, vocational training, and sometimes those enlistment bonuses as well. Often those bonuses are tied directly to enlisting in the most dangerous military occupational specialties, like being a combat infantryman. The empire always needs fresh bodies.

In sum, I think it’s a great idea to open more opportunities to high school graduates in America. But while we do that, let’s do three other things: 1) Strengthen workers’ unions in America; 2) Raise the federal minimum wage to at least $15 an hour; 3) Improve high school education across the board through more educational funding. higher pay for teachers, and an ethos in America that values education as essential to active and informed participation in civic life.

The Tyranny of Low Expectations

Of the people, by the people, for the people

W.J. Astore

We often hear the USA is the richest, most powerful, most advanced, nation in the world. We also hear much talk about freedom and democracy in America, and how exceptional our country is. Given all these riches, all this power, and all this freedom, shouldn’t we have high expectations about what our government is able to accomplish for us?

Yet I’ve run across the opposite of this. I’ve come to think of it as the tyranny of low expectations. I see it most often when I criticize Joe Biden and the Democrats. I’m told that I expect too much, that Joe is doing his best but that his power is limited as president, and that I should wait patiently for party insiders to move the Biden administration ever so slightly toward the left. And if I keep criticizing Joe and Company, I’m dismissed as an unreasonable leftist who’s helping Trump and his followers, so the effect of my criticism is bizarrely equated to far-right Trumpism.

Here are a few items that I believe the richest, most powerful, most advanced nation in the world should do for its citizens in the cause of greater freedom and democracy:

  1. A living wage of at least $15 an hour for workers.
  2. Affordable single-payer health care for all.
  3. A firm commitment to ending child poverty.
  4. A firm commitment to affordable housing for all.
  5. A firm commitment to affordable education and major reductions in student debt.
  6. A Covid aid package dedicated to helping workers and small businesses.
  7. A government that is transparent to the people and accountable to them rather than one cloaked in secrecy and open for business only to the rich.

These items seem reasonable to me. They don’t seem “left” or “right.” They’re not too much to expect from the richest, most powerful, nation, the one that boasts of its exceptional freedom and its strong commitment to democracy.

The money is there. A trillion dollars a year is spent in the name of national defense. Trillions have been spent to bailout Wall Street and to wage wasteful wars overseas. Why is the money always there for Wall Street and wars and weapons but it’s rarely if ever there for workers and students and children?

Why do we persist in setting our expectations so low for “our” government, whether the POTUS of the moment is Trump or Biden or someone allegedly more competent and focused on “ordinary folk,” like Obama?

Warning to ideological warriors: This is not about Trump, or Biden, or your particular party allegiance. This is about creating a government that actually listens and responds to the needs of everyone, but especially to the weakest among us, those needing the most help in their pursuit of happiness.

Too simplistic? Too idealistic? I don’t think so. Not once we overthrow the tyranny of low expectations.

Somewhere I’ve read about a government of the people, by the people, for the people. We had better find it or reinvigorate it before it perishes from the earth.

“Nothing Would Fundamentally Change”

W.J. Astore

“Nothing would fundamentally change” when he’s elected. Promise kept.

Joe Biden is keeping one campaign promise: that nothing would fundamentally change in his administration. So, for example, Americans are not getting single-payer (and much more affordable) health care for all. (Biden, one must admit, promised nothing more than Obamacare with perhaps more funding for those struggling to afford it.) American workers are not getting a $15 minimum wage, despite Biden’s (broken) promise of supporting the same. And Biden is not cutting defense spending — at all. Instead, the Pentagon budget is to be “flatlined” at the near-record high levels reached under the Trump administration. So much for forcing the military to cut wonky wasteful weapons. It’s business as usual at the Pentagon, with an emphasis on business and profit at the expense of the American taxpayer.

What is to be done? Many Democrats argue that Joe Biden has to be the sensible centrist, constrained as he allegedly is by conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin. But of course Joe Biden himself is a conservative pro-business president who sees Manchin as a sympathetic senator and supporter. Meanwhile, Republicans, still in thrall to Trump, refuse to play along with bipartisan malarkey, except when it comes to maintaining massive military budgets. Again, under these conditions, nothing will fundamentally change.

The American people want affordable health care and support a single-payer system run by the federal government. They also support a $15 minimum wage for full-time workers. They’re getting neither. And this is by design. Not to rehash the 2020 Democratic primaries, but Joe Biden didn’t win by appealing to voters; he won because party heavyweights like Obama threw their support to him. Biden didn’t win the nomination; it was handed to him. Because the owners and donors know Joe, and they know Joe hasn’t a liberal bone in his body, let alone a progressive one. The same is true of Kamala Harris, his vice president, a thoroughly conventional and predictable conservative.

As my Uncle Gino would have said, Biden and Harris are spineless jellyfish. (No offense to jellyfish.) They float around in the swamp of DC assuming any shape and form they need to take to conform to the pressures and interests around them. And their lack of spine leaves open the possibility of Trump or some other wannabe demagogue emerging in 2024. Because more than a few people prefer an incompetent ass like Trump to insincere hacks like Biden and Harris, if only because Trump shows some spine, even if his policies are often even worse for America than those of the spineless Democrats.

Democracy, real democracy, isn’t about a “choice” between two parties, each of which refuses to listen to workers or to serve the interests of sanity and peace. Americans need real choice, including a party that would truly fight for health care for all, truly fight for a $15 minimum wage, and truly fight for peace and against colossal military spending. Only then will America have a semblance of real democracy. Right now, we have a sham democracy, a sham that is well on its way to leaving most of America in shambles.

Raise the Minimum Wage!

Amen, brother! (Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

Remarkably, the federal minimum wage still sits at $7.25 an hour and hasn’t been raised since 2009. As a reminder, Barack Obama and Joe Biden were riding high from 2009 to 2016 and they never saw fit to fight hard enough to raise that paltry sum. That’s why Bernie Sanders was so appealing in 2015 when he challenged Hillary Clinton and advocated for a $15.00 minimum wage. People may forget that Hillary initially equivocated, proposing only a $12.00 minimum wage. Ah, the generosity and compassion of Hillary. No boundaries except for $12.00 an hour.

Allegedly, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi are now for the $15.00 sum, but of course it would be phased in over several years since the peasants must be reminded of their place. It’s possible that the Covid relief plan currently in the works will finally set the country on a firm if slow path to $15.00. Even so, consider a full-time employee working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. If she makes $15.00 an hour, her pay before taxes would max out at $30,000.00 a year, hardly a munificent sum. Consider that she’d have to work full-time for 22 years to make as much money as Hillary Clinton made in three short speeches to the financial and banking sectors. I’m with her (for the money)!

My father knew the score. As a factory worker, he had to fight for a dime pay raise, a story he recounted in his journal. Here’s an excerpt:

It seems that Mike Calabrese on his own asked Harry Gilson for a pay raise [at the factory] and he was refused.  Mike decided to organize the men members and go down in a group.  In our group he got ten men to approach Harry G. for a raise.  But when it was time to “bell the cat” only three fellows went to see Harry.  Well Mike said he couldn’t join the group because he had already tried to get a raise.  I knew I was being used but I was entitled to a raise.  Well Harry said to me, “What can I do for you men?”  So I said to Harry: 1) Living costs were going up; 2) We deserved a raise.  So Harry said, “How much?”  and I said ten cents an hour would be a fair raise.  So he said I’ll give you a nickel an hour raise and later you’ll get the other nickel.  We agreed.  So, I asked Harry will everyone get a raise and he replied, “Only the ones that I think deserve it.”

Well a month later I was drinking water at the bubbler [water fountain] and Harry saw me and said what a hard job they had to get the money to pay our raises.  Well, Willie, Harry Gilson and his brother Sam and their two other Italian brother partners all died millionaires.  No other truer saying than, “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”

And then my father added this pearl of wisdom: From my life’s experience I’ve found that the harder I worked physically the less money I made.

Lee Camp knows the score as well as he calls for real redistribution of wealth in this humorous article. My dad would like this guy.

I know, we can’t say “class warfare” in America, comrade. But maybe that’s because, as the billionaire Warren Buffett put it, the richest among us are so clearly winning.